Commencement 2009

A look back at 50 years of sports at Brown

By
Monday, May 25, 2009

When the Brown and Pembroke classes of 1959 graduated, we left having experienced the beginnings of a half century of profound transformation for Brown athletics.

Two major events had occurred during our time on College Hill: the formal beginning of Ivy League competition in 1956 and the University’s purchase of the Dexter Asylum in 1957.

The next half century would revolve around these two axes and expand on the strong foundation of Brown’s first century of competition, which began with a crew race in 1859.

The Brown of our day had a small, compact campus and a homogenous enrollment of 2,200 men, mainly drawn from New England and the Mid-Atlantic states. Tuition averaged $1,000 per year, and the endowment was miniscule. Brown’s 800 women lived on their lovely Pembroke campus on Meeting Street and attended class on the Brown campus.Brown’s major sports area was the Elmgrove Avenue complex (the Stadium, Aldrich Field and Marvel Gym), which was a bus ride away for athletes of all levels, including students taking mandatory physical education classes. Thayer Street Field (site of the current Grad Center) hosted intramurals. Pembroke played in Sayles Gym (now Smith-Buonanno Hall) and at nearby Pembroke Field.

At Brown there were the usual sports — football, soccer, basketball, hockey, wrestling, baseball and track — but squash, crew and lacrosse functioned on a club sport basis. Intercollegiate competition at Pembroke was also on a club level. Attending athletic events, especially football games, was a large part of the rather monolithic Brown experience.
Homecoming, with Bruno the live bear mascot, and Spring Weekend, featuring crew races on the Seekonk, were highlights of the social calendar.

The 1954 Ivy Group Agreement reflected the position of the eight Ivy presidents — that big-time athletics, mostly football, were out of control and that academics were paramount.
The agreement stipulated that “players be truly representative of the student body and not comprised of a group of specially recruited athletes.” Financial aid would be based on demonstrated need rather than on athletic prowess.

Despite its eagerness to join a league with its most time-honored rivals, Brown found itself seriously overmatched in Ivy play, especially in the signature sports of football and basketball (Brown would not win its first football title until 1976, 1986 for basketball). Like Sisyphus, Brown was destined to roll the boulder up the hill toward the Ivy summit, where the “Big Three” (Harvard, Yale and Princeton), Penn and Dartmouth were securely positioned, eager to push it back down.

As Bruno sank to the bottom, assuming the role of doormat in the 1960s, considerable heated debate emerged among alums as to whether Brown really belonged in the Ivy League.

The problem was, of course, systemic: Brown had too few full-time coaches and a shoestring budget. We were competing against schools with larger enrollments, deeper pockets, vastly superior facilities, more storied athletic traditions and a stronger commitment to winning.

Only through the herculean efforts of coaches like the irrepressible Cliff Stevenson (soccer) and genial Jim Fullerton (hockey) did Brown feel some sense of belonging during the 1960s. Stevenson, who coached until 1990, dominated the Ivies for an extended period, winning most of Brown’s eight team titles from 1956 to 1970. He later did the same in lacrosse, which he helped elevate to varsity status in 1963. Brown was simply muddling through in that period, with just enough individual and team success to quell the calls for us to bow out of the Ivy League and move to a less competitive athletic stage.

For women, the 1971 Brown-Pembroke merger, coupled with the passage of Title IX legislation in 1972 ushered in a new chapter in Ivy League history. Championship play for women began in 1974. Brown was an early leader, especially in ice hockey and soccer, where Phil Pincince mirrored the early success on the men’s side. With Brown’s enrollment growing and a stronger level of support for athletics in the 1970s, our athletic posture began to improve, but our forays to the top were episodic, often followed by deep valleys of mediocrity.

The past three decades have seen an increasing Brown presence in the Ivy League, thanks in large measure to the efforts of the Brown University Sports Foundation, which was founded in 1983 to provide adequate financial underpinnings for all Brown sports. From a nettlesome irritant to the traditional powers, who seem to view Ivy titles as a kind of birthright, to being a feared rival, is a long jump.

Of late, Brown has made that leap in several sports, notably football, baseball, men’s soccer and lacrosse, as well as men’s and women’s crew and tennis.

The challenge is for us to become consistent contenders.  Brown has won multiple yearly championships since the 1990s, but overall in the fifty-plus years of league competition,  we have captured only 114 titles (13.6 percent), compared to Princeton’s 366 and Harvard’s 331.

Brown’s overall poor showing is partly related to inadequate facilities. Unlike the dramatic development of the Elmgrove Avenue complex in the 1920s, the pace of building at the Erickson Athletic Complex (originally Aldrich-Dexter Field) has been glacial. Major buildings have appeared every decade, tied to capital campaigns of the period. Each has suffered from compromises related to funding.

The best example of these compromises is what was not built in the 1970s: a magnificent cluster of buildings that would have completed the job and created an underground parking garage for 850 cars.

Instead, we got the Smith Swimming Center, which is now history. Brown has consistently been a day late and a dollar short and settled for a piecemeal approach, which has resulted in a set of buildings devoid of character and charm. Ironically, Brown now finds itself in familiar territory in attempting to build a first-rate fitness center for the entire community.

After years of planning and two architects, the planned $50 million project is on hold, probably destined to be scaled down to a shadow of the 80,000 square foot plan presented last year. Fortunately the playing fields have not suffered the same fate, and Erickson now has outstanding outdoor facilities.

As daunting as the Ivy League facilities arms race is, it pales in comparison to the challenge Brown now faces in enrolling top athletes to play in them. The emerging disparities in financial aid awards threaten the very underpinnings of a competitive Ivy League. With a yearly price tag of nearly $50,000, Brown is struggling to compete with Harvard, Princeton and Yale.

Whether the league becomes more lopsided or even ceases to exist will be directly related to the financial aid conundrum that Brown and a few others face.

We have come so far and yet have so far to go. Brown has indeed been the little engine that could. As a result, the Brown of today bears little outward resemblance to that of the 1950s. With a diverse student body of nearly 6,000 undergraduates, over 900 student-athletes, 39 varsity sports, several club sports, a robust intramural and recreational program and an athletic budget of $13 million, athletic competition is alive and well on campus. Whether or not current athletes are truly representative of the student body, they are consistently at the top of the class when compared to athletic cohorts nationally.
Whether the idealism and good will that resulted in the creation of the Ivy League will be perpetuated remains to be seen.

What is certain is that the old Bears of ’59 will carry forward what Theodore Francis Green of the class of 1887 called “The Great Brown Spirit” as we watch the next 50 years unfold.

The writer, celebrating his 50th reunion this year, is the sports archivist for the University Archives’ Edward North 1896 Collection of Brown Athletics.